I stumbled across something that blew up my idea of how we seek and experience happiness – Einhorn’s Theory of Happiness.
Gratitude Vs. Discontent
I have grappled with the widely accepted notion that happiness is a wrestling match between discontentment and gratitude. People who find themselves in a constant state of discontent don’t know how to be happy because there is always this feeling that they should have more, or there is something they’re missing out on. Happiness is hard to experience in that state. On the other hand, you can interact with wildly grateful people who are constantly expressing gratitude and in this state of awe and wonderment for all that life is. Those people are generally happy, and sometimes, they are happy despite circumstances that most people would expect to elicit unhappiness, regret, and discontent.
I stumbled across Einhorn, a behavioral psychologist who built a concept of the coefficient for happiness. He has encapsulated this struggle between discontent and gratitude. He built these different categories by looking at things that we have that we want which is positive; it creates gratitude. When we think about the things that we have that we want, we move towards a state of gratitude. The opposite is the things that we have that we don’t want, which creates discontent. If we think about either of those things more than the other, we lean in that direction. The third category: the stuff that we want that we don’t have – theoretically, an infinite amount of weight that is so heavy on our lives today. We feel a constant, almost magnetic pull into discontent. The invitation is right there in your pocket, dinging at you while you’re going about your day; asking you to scroll and compare and regress into unhappiness. We are constantly surrounded by opportunities to compare, and when we compare ourselves with anything less than the full picture we get of our own lives, we come out feeling empty every time.
Are You Happy Now?
Einhorn argues that if those are the only three categories to which we pay attention, we have almost no choice but to live in discontent. The weight of what we have but do not want and the weight of what we want but do not have will always be overwhelming compared to the weight of what we already have that we want. He argues that the only way that we can ever counterbalance those feelings is to consider and dwell on the stuff that we do not want that we do not have. So often we think that if we can just move into the category of having more of the stuff we want, we’ll find peace; there is some endpoint where it will eventually be enough. He argues that it could never be because it is too limited. We need an unlimited way to move into gratitude and happiness.
Allow me to give an example.
I’m sitting across the table from a couple in a crisis, struggling in their marriage because they have a child going off the rails. If we spend time thinking about the stuff we can appreciate to not have on our plate, we create more gratitude than thinking about the stuff we want. The fourth and final element is the only thing that can tip the scales towards gratitude: what we want that we already have. Everything else is negative. And it directly corresponds to our finances because we spend so much of our money chasing things we want that we do not have, trying to put them in the category of things we want that we do have. Spending money we don’t have so we feel happier in the short-term only to repeat the cycle when that moment of happiness inevitably sinks away. That will never be enough; it could never outweigh the unlimited in the category of things we want that we do not have.
This Is Happiness
I want to offer that you spend more time in that fourth category. The only way you can do that is by spending less time doing the opposite. Less time on social media getting messages that tell you you’re not satisfied because you don’t have these things; something outside of you telling you how to feel about your life. What sends me into that fourth quadrant the most is relationships. When I invest in people in pain, give myself away to those who are hurting and meet with people stuck in something they have that they do not want, I spend more time in that quadrant of gratitude. For whatever reason, I don’t have that thing that I do not want, and for that, I can feel grateful. And when we are in that gratitude, we’re happier.
If you more often than not find yourself tilting into discontent or you never feel like you’re satisfied, spend time outside of your own life so you can come back into it with a wider lens. Journal those feelings and list the things you do not have that you do not want. Spend time looking at that list, and you will find happiness in your life.